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Robey, O'Rourke tour schools in Ellicott City


Howard County's executive and schools superintendent worked on keeping their promise of a good working relationship yesterday, despite a pending 38 percent higher capital budget request that may test their resolve.

County Executive James N. Robey and Superintendent John R. O'Rourke toured several crowded Ellicott City-area schools yesterday in what O'Rourke said was an attempt to "let him see how the buildings are used" and to work on building their relationship.

Robey is reeling from the latest request for $69.5 million in school building funds for next year, including a $4 million down payment on a $41 million high school that was not on the horizon last year.

"In the last two years, I was hoping there was light at the end of the [school construction] tunnel," Robey said after touring the 3-year-old Hollifield Station Elementary School - 200 children over capacity with more to come. An addition for 150 children is to open in 2002.

But instead of declining school construction costs, Robey is faced with growing demands for expensive new schools as construction costs are escalating.

O'Rourke's capital budget request includes $8 million to pay for a 16 percent inflation rate in per-square-foot costs in an economy where contractors, in Robey's words, "can write their own ticket."

Robey was perturbed to hear that school officials knew Hollifield soon would be full to overflowing when opened in 1997. Principal Glenn W. Heisey said 115 children enrolled in kindergarten this year instead of the 95 projected, and the school has about 700 children.

"How does that happen?" Robey asked. "You knew in advance you would be over capacity, so why wasn't planning done?"

Heisey said that instead of planning for more rooms at Hollifield, budget constraints forced a 15 percent cut in construction funding, leaving the building with narrower hallways and no teacher planning rooms. Open areas such as the media center have been adapted for classroom space.

"This is one of our pressured buildings," said O'Rourke, adding that the visit with Robey was designed to "further develop our relationship."

The superintendent said he was apprehensive about asking for so much construction money right off the bat. "I do get nervous. It's been a contentious issue," he said.

As for the seemingly sudden proposal for a 12th high school two years before the new Reservoir High opens in Fulton, O'Rourke said it had to come up sometime.

Still, unlike last year, when Robey said early that the county could not afford the $53 million the school board wanted for construction projects (it got $50.6 million), Robey would not rule out this year's request, which the board is to formally receive today.

"I owe the superintendent an honest effort to give his budget every opportunity of working," Robey said. The executive also said that all of Howard's capital budget needs won't be met next spring. "I can tell you right now, that's impossible."

The two men then climbed into O'Rourke's car for a visit to Mount Hebron High - an older school roughly 170 students over capacity despite an addition two years ago.

Robey is no stranger there. His mother worked at Mount Hebron, he said, and while he was on the county police force, the tactical squad sometimes used the building's hallways on rainy nights as a place to exercise and run drills.

He learned that some space at Hollifield and Mount Hebron is taken by expanding programs for special-education students and preschool children, some with special needs.

O'Rourke said that a system like Howard County, with a good special education program, will draw students from other areas.

The men ran into Virginia Peralta, a ninth-grade science teacher working in the new wing - one of four ninth-grade teachers without a permanent classroom. "We always build for what is, rather than for what's coming," she said.

The new wing has made things better, said Principal John Quinn, but the building is so crowded he has had to create "one-way" stairways and use every space.

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